Donald Trump will use his stunning victory to insist voters gave him a mandate to shake up Washington.
He’s right. But Washington won’t play along.
Trump’s rise from political outsider to president of the United States is unlikely to move a Congress that he reviled for months. It’s a Congress that promises to continue being stuck, poisoned by venomous, relentless partisanship that Tuesday’s election won’t stop.
He’s also dogged by his mouth and his own party. Top Republicans distanced themselves from Trump weeks and sometimes months ago. And Trump’s shown a consistent ability to alienate blocs of constituents with his insults.
“Trump has a significant mandate,” said Jonathan Felts, former White House political director for President George W. Bush. “His challenge will be being disciplined enough so that he can spend his political capital proactively moving legislation rather than wasting it having to clean up self-inflicted wounds.”
Trump will begin his presidency as one of the most distrusted, disliked men ever to occupy the White House. Nearly 2 of 3 people in network exit polls said he was not honest or trustworthy, and 60 percent viewed him unfavorably. Just 13 percent said they were excited about a Trump presidency.
He won after a campaign largely devoid of serious debate over issues.
And while he marshaled an impressive brigade of voters frustrated by a stodgy, unresponsive political system, he also benefited by running against an opponent with negatives almost as high as his. What dominated the dialogue between Hillary Clinton and him were accusations about who is more irresponsible, hateful and corrupt.
“There’s no big mandate for change of a policy nature,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.
Both of them have baggage, and each candidate’s campaign has been accentuating the baggage of the other.
Lee Miringoff, director, Marist Institute for Public Opinion
Trump will try to bring people together, to be sure.
“The distrust will put pressure on both parties to work together,” said Michael Feldman, a Democratic consultant who was a senior adviser to Vice President Al Gore.
“That doesn’t mean they’ll be successful. There are huge, huge obstacles.”
Foremost is a Congress where Democrats and Republicans have been warring for years, with no end in sight. Even within the parties, struggles persist. Conservatives and center-right lawmakers are at odds over whether to stand on principle or seek compromise. Democratic liberals are at odds with pragmatists.
Congress won’t let Trump dictate its agenda. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., separated himself from Trump last month, telling House members he would no longer defend the party’s nominee.
There is no hope and change in this election for Hillary.
Jonathan Felts, White House political director for President George W. Bush
What could save Trump’s agenda is that it’s often Ryan’s agenda, and the House of Representatives will retain a solid GOP majority next year.
Congressional Republicans have been eager for years to repeal and replace Obamacare. Trump agrees. Democrats are determined to keep the law and offer improvements.
Immigration appears headed for another stalemate. Democrats tend to favor a comprehensive approach, combining a path to citizenship for many immigrants who are already in the U.S. illegally with a crackdown on border enforcement.
Ryan prefers what he calls “stages and pieces, not some big massive bill,” starting with tighter border security.
One presidential plank no mandate will save is Trump’s calls for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Objections from Democrats, who will have enough Senate strength to block any such proposal, will doom this idea. And if not, Trump’s plan to have Mexico pay for it is likely to go nowhere.
“No mandate will be big enough to get Mexico to pay for the wall,” said Felts.
(What) they are saying now is we want checks and balances. . . . So what does checks and balances mean? It's a euphemism for obstruction.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, talking about Republican strategy should Donald Trump lose
The two parties are somewhat closer on tax code changes, and have been for some time. But they’ve been stuck on whether to impose higher taxes on the super-rich.
Democrats have tried for years to impose higher taxes on people with adjusted gross incomes of more than $1 million.
Ryan and Trump want to collapse the current seven personal income-tax rates into three. The top rate would be 33 percent instead of the current 39.6 percent.
First, though, Trump has to get his team in place, and that will prove difficult. Typically, the president-elect nominates members of the Cabinet by Christmas. Congress holds hearings and votes so the new team is in place by Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.
The norm is usually that the Senate goes along with the nominee unless there’s a smoldering controversy. This time, there’s no guarantee.
“It’s going to be difficult to get appointments confirmed,” predicted Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at Washington’s Brookings Institution, a research center. Not only will Democrats be wary of Trump choices, but several key GOP senators feel no loyalty to the president-elect.
Historically, a new president had his team in place by Jan. 20 and pointed to voter support to push a top priority: Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cut, Bill Clinton’s 1993 deficit reduction plan, George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cut and Barack Obama’s overhaul of the health care system.
That momentum eased the path for ideas that would have been far more difficult to push in later years. That’s hardly a sure thing this time.
“The next president is going to have a really hard time,” said Quentin Kidd, the director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. “The level of dysfunction that frustrates people is not going to go away.”